The Greatest Artworks of the Past Two Decades?
Associates in Conversation, April 2018
Charlie Tims: As you know a couple of week ago ‘Front Row’, Radio 4’s quite annoying flagship cultural-stuff programme, celebrated it’s twentieth anniversary with a programme about ‘the greatest artwork of the past twenty years.’ Hopefully you’ve all had a chance to think about what that might be for you.
John H: Could I first of all say, what I found interesting about the Front Row programme was that none of the choices were what would conventionally be called ‘a work of art’. There was a TV programme, a hip-hop record, a piece of musical theatre, and a film. I once had an argument with Mark Lawson because he was drawing a huge distinction between art and entertainment, and I said most of what you do on this programme, which is supposed to be an arts programme, is in fact entertainment — it’s all tangled these days. But nobody chose the conventional ‘high art’ options; opera; painting; poetry.
So I chose Damien Hirst’s crystal skull not because it’s my favourite work, but I think it’s the most significant work; it really encapsulates our times. It’s about bling; it’s about money; it’s a statement saying to the horrible art world: “whose the biggest out there, who can afford this?” And nobody did! Because at the heart of the work is a skull, so it says to anybody that might have the required 50 million quid, “you’re still going to die.” So it has an eternal quality as well as a highly specific temporal quality. It’s also one of those works of art which, when you see it, transcends any of the reproductions. It has a genuine aura. It looks terribly superficial but it is in fact deeply meaningful. It says a lot about the times in which we live; about the art market in particular; issues of celebrity; superficiality… But at the end of the day, what it’s really saying is the profound statement of “death awaits us all.” An aside is that Damien Hirst didn’t actually sell it in the end — it was sold to a consortium of which he was a member. He actually made more money from selling reproductions and signed prints of it than he would have done out of selling the artwork itself.
Mark Suggitt: When I was working with galleries in Bradford we actually bought one — they weren’t that expensive actually. It was affordable and there were a lot of them. It’s interesting because, like you, when I was looking for things which would be considered ‘important’, this line between what I like best and what I think is significant became distinct. So I was thinking about the YBAs, the lot of them. Because from 1998 onwards, it was about the rise of the art market and the commodification of art, things being brought and locked away in sheds, hopefully accruing value. When a documentary is made of the last 30 years there’ll be pictures of them alongside Blur and Oasis.
Charlie Tims: Was there something significant about the time? About ten years ago, was it just before the crash?
Mark Suggitt: It was earlier, it was around 2007.
John Kieffer: I had the dubious honour of giving Damien his first ever grant, actually. He’d been turned down by the Arts Council and I was working at the Docklands, and he came down and said “give us some fucking money, because we’re going to be really fucking famous and really fucking rich.” He basically laid out exactly what he was going to be doing for the next 30 years — I’m not exaggerating, it was extraordinary. He was still at Goldsmiths and he said “I’ll have a factory, I won’t be making my own work.”
Charlie Timms: Do you think the skull, 20 years on, was the end of that trajectory; the end of him?
Lois Stonock: It kind of was. Didn’t he get into loads of trouble, saying he’d sold it and then the tax man came along and it turned out he hadn’t actually sold it, and he had to make a public apology? It was all a bit embarrassing and started a conversation about how he hadn’t sold a lot of his work recently…
John Holden: And then the crash happened. But the art market didn’t crash.
Charlie Tims: As a piece of work is it a way into understanding how the landscape of arts culture has shifted over the last couple of decades?
John Holden: I think the whole story does. How it was put together; how it was sold or not sold; how it was commodified in terms of reproduction; the art market that surrounded it.
John Kieffer: If the general economy goes down the art market goes up, of course.
Mark Suggitt: There’s that trajectory from the late 60s early 70s avant-garde, which didn’t really break through into the public consciousness, through into the YBAs, with the skull, with ‘Sensation’, where it gets mainstream. In a way you could say it was a dilution of an avant- garde which became popularised.
John Kieffer: I’m not sure it has gone mainstream though. All of them have tried to do things where real people would have to spend money and it hasn’t worked — like when Pharmacy closed down. I think they only make sense in relation to the art market.
John Holden: And the art market only makes sense in relation to money hoarding!
Lois Stonock: I picked Lemonade, I guess it was either that or the performance of ‘Formation’ at the Super Bowl which was really amazing. I think it was good that John started with Damien Hirst because I went to Goldsmiths and studied Fine Art against that background, with a real privileging around ‘artwork’; the exclusiveness of ‘artwork.’ We were taught that everything is ‘art’ as long as you say it is. But the more I’ve grown up since being out of art school the more I’ve been aware that that isn’t the case, and that there is this weird privileging within the sector, and I’ve become less and less interested in visual art. For me it’s really symbolised by an artist I was at Goldsmiths with called Magali Reus, who actually has an exhibition on at the moment at the South London Gallery. She was fantastically interesting at college because she was making work about corporate culture and remaking corporate culture. As she’s become more successful and started displaying all over the world, her work has become more about blue-collar working — from uniforms to products that she makes. For me that’s a real symbol of this shift in practice, that she doesn’t dare go near this corporate culture anymore that is funding her practice.
So, anyway, when I first saw Lemonade, which is not just an album but an entire feature length film, I thought it looked almost like an Isaac Julien piece I could have seen in Victoria Miro. It felt like this massive shift in popular culture to do something that is so visually interesting; talking about race, women, American politics. She performed that in the black panther outfit at the Super Bowl and the character of this fairly poppy, Destiny’s Child singer became this serious role model playing with the language of aesthetics in popular culture and the role of politics within that. It’s amazing and it marks something for me about this transition in the last 20 years of what serious, interesting art is. For me, it’s not in white galleries where you’d see Damien Hirst anymore, it’s in music videos and popular culture.
John Kieffer: I love the bit where they’re all wearing these period costumes on the beach, which feels like a reference to a filmmaker called Julie Dash, who did Daughters of the Dust (1991). There are many references woven into that album.
Charlie Tims: Is stuff that’s at the top of everyone’s radar now a bit more intelligent or more thought through than it was 30 years ago? Did we have equivalents of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar?
Daisy Froud: I think it’s more the resources that people have immediately to hand. Right back at the beginning rappers are sampling but they literally have to sample from the actual records they can get their hands on. I graduated in 1997, so I can remember 1998 so clearly, and it’s such a massive flipping point, especially once you get the internet and an email address! Getting information used to be so laborious, having to go to libraries and flip through reference books… There was a real limit to what I could compile in a short space of time, and those limitations simply don’t exist anymore — if you’re clever you can access so much so quickly.
Mark Suggitt: I think the key point you’ve made is collaboration. People like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are born natural collaborators, they can pull different people in quickly and seamlessly — Beyoncé is a catalyst which pulls everything together to be greater than the whole.
Daisy Froud: Initially this was quite tongue in cheek and I just plucked it out of my head, because Charlie said pick something or I’ll pick it for you. I should say that probably for about 48 hours in 2012 I did think this was the greatest work of art of the past 20 years. And it actually epitomises a lot of the points I’d want to make about culture in the last 20 years too.
I do really love Grimes. There are things here around cultural identity, and what I find fascinating about her — and other women of her generation, which I feel is quite different to the way that I was brought up — is that she’s very much in control of herself and her image. She literally does everything herself, because the tools are now available. She directed this video; she makes her own music, which is pop, but it’s avant-garde; she does her own cover art; she’s completely in control of her own identity even as she brings in multiple collaborators. Like Beyoncé, she plays with ideas of sexuality and gender identity, but what I particularly like about her is that, in fact, you know nothing about who she is as a woman. We don’t know who her partner is; we don’t know if she’s gay or straight; we don’t know if she has a kid; none of this is communicated to us. I really envy a generation that can come of age with this stuff rather than encounter it a someone who is middle aged!
Then there is something amazing about the platforms that she is able to access — this video has over 50 million views on Youtube, and it’s a tremendously low resource way of controlling and allowing access without having to rely on traditional chains of dissemination. It made me think of my daughter who is ten, and — I know cultural influences is a horrible phrase — her cultural influences are all on Youtube. These are the personalities that are shaping her world, and now she’s at an age where she wants to make videos with her friends and upload them to Youtube.
The third point is about sampling and representation. We have so many resources at our fingertips. When she talks about this video she’s explicitly referencing everything from Hieronymus Bosch, to Britney Spears, to Alice in Wonderland, and she’s bringing in collaborators like Brooke Candy, who’s a musician and cabaret dancer. I feel like my generation was self-consciously combining elements from different eras, but now that’s unconscious and relaxed, whilst at the same time self-aware.
John Kieffer: I’m editing this book about music and soundtracks at the moment, and we had a session last night where we were talking about authenticity and limitation, and how limitation cuts both ways. What we’re seeing right now is that almost everything is available, so you can use it; repurpose it; mash it up. That’s a massive change. Even if you’re relatively socially marginalised you can still do that, to an extent. But there’s another side to it as well. It’s a really mixed group of young musicians and older musicians, and one of the older musicians was saying what might be at risk here is this notion of authenticity. Authenticity is a lot about trying to overcome limitations. There might be a weird upside to limited access to or availability of things.
Charlie Tims: Now I thought it would be good to pick up on a few things that people who aren’t here today chose: Steve Moffitt chose Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003). I think it’s quite good that he chose something at the beginning of the last 20 years rather than at the end. Mark Williams chose the Simpsons which I think he’s watched about every day for the last 20 years, which might be cheating, because although it’s been running from the last two decades, it was definitely around before that.
Mark Suggitt: So this is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and one of the great things about it was that whilst we’ve talked a lot about technology and everything like that, this is a deceptively simple installation, and the closest I’ve got to what is actually a secular temple. You can sit and look at the Yorkshire sky, and it can do whatever you want it to do: it can take you out of yourself; you can think; switch off; just look up. It’s remarkable how people go in there talking and suddenly they shut up. In a way it’s the opposite of some of the things we’ve spoken about. His background is a Quaker environment, so there’s something in that about this contemplation and silence in a world that is increasingly bonkers and connected. You engage in a different way, through just looking rather than having everything coming at you. It’s probably the saving grace of a lot of White Cube style galleries, that they’re quiet spaces where you can get out of the chaos.
Charlie Tims: Grimes and Beyoncé are very much ‘of the moment,’ aren’t they? Taking politics and everything that technology offers us and layers of complex references. It’s of the ‘now.’ Can you think about the Deer Shelter and the Weather Project in the same way? Do you think that’s a particular moment in time? That people will look back and think “wow, people were totally lost, looking to contemporary art for a religious experience…”
Mark Suggitt: They’re almost timeless. They’re so simple. They’ll have lasting value; they’re not modish; they’re not using the latest drum machine that you’ll get bored with. Maybe that’s why they work so well.
Tom Keeley: They’re a very interesting counterpoint to Lemonade and ‘Genesis’ because all these things are about people coming together. With Deer Shelter and the Weather Project it’s about coming together in a physical, quiet space; it’s much more nebulous; much more universal, perhaps. Everyone’s under the sky! But with the other two this coming together is virtual; it’s celebrating certain forms of plurality of identity.
Mark Suggitt: The other thing with Deer Shelter is, being in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, you encounter things by accident. The accidental is important.
Daisy Froud: It’s that juxtaposition though — whether a great work of art is great because it’s timeless or because it’s of its time? Both the music videos we chose express frustration with issues of identity that are by no means new, but that are being explicitly readdressed now. Because what’s really changed?
John Kieffer: Okay, two mini stories: one of which is purely personal and one of which is not. When I was a kid I grew up in a suburban, working class council estate just outside of London, right next to an American Airforce base. All of the kids around the Airforce base who I used to mix with were African American, and I grew up obsessed with black music but also comics and science fiction. So in a weird kind of way this felt like my life being flung back at me. That’s not why it’s important, of course. In 2005 I did a festival in South Africa and the guy doing the PR on it with the British Council was a fantastic screenwriter and I persuaded him to leave his job and pursue a career as a screenwriter, and he was involved in the early versions of this film. Very sadly, he died four years ago. He had a heart attack very young, but everyone knows he would have been involved in this had he lived.
I spoke to his son a few weeks ago, very smart, 17 or 18 years old, also going to be a screenwriter, and he said “this is the most important film in Africa; it wraps up so many things.” Even though it’s set in a mythological place, it’s pretty accurate on so many aspects of African culture; with the Afro-futuristic aesthetic and influences of Sun Ra; it’s loaded with references. He said all over Africa people are going back to see it everyday. It just has an amazing effect on people. What’s powerful about great artworks is not what they transmit themselves, but how people interpret and receive them. It’s interesting how all this has migrated to Marvel and Disney, which was the business of ‘serious artists’ before. It’s not just gone mainstream, it’s actually got more powerful.
Chloe Carroll ( Associate Royal College of Art research placement) : This felt really important. Firstly, just in seeing it at the Lisson Gallery’s ‘EVERYTHING AT ONCE’ show, it was palpable how popular it was — I went a few times and each time the queues were massive, like 30-40 minutes long. It felt like it had a real effect; it drew people in. Secondly, it relates quite a lot to what we were talking about earlier with collaboration and sampling and referencing; to Beyoncé and Grimes in terms of empowerment; to Beyoncé and Black Panther in terms of race politics. But I think what really struck me about it was that it’s one of the only pieces I’ve seen to successfully compile and make full explicit use of this media frenzy that we’re constantly confronted with — how we’re almost numbed to the power of images because we scroll through them constantly, from when we wake up to when we go to bed. I know that’s an obvious point, but it feels like one of the biggest changes of the past couple of decades.
It’s almost like alchemy; like a string of fairy lights where one’s missing and you screw it in and they all come on at once. This power is summoned in a kind of magical way, just from compiling clips from journalistic media, Youtube, personal archives, music videos, Getty images clips with the logo emblazoned over them… It’s somehow a new way of collaging which feels like it’s moving forwards, even though it’s not a new medium or a crazily innovative use of technology. The way he edits and chooses things is so skilful. It’s a really politically important piece that’s struck so many people and it feels like — what you were saying, Daisy — is something great because it’s timeless or is something great because it’s of its time? And this is so of its time, but it has an epic timelessness to it as well.
Charlie Tims: I really like the idea that it’s kind of referencing what we’re doing now, quoting bits of Youtube to each other, and how our imaginations are increasingly in a symbiotic relationship with screens. I think you see that in Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake, or even the second Trainspotting film, like those weird sequences when they’re remembering their past but it’s through Youtube at the same time. It’s a thing and it should have a name!
John Kieffer: That incredible rollercoaster kind of thing, the project never happened but when I worked with Artangel we were going to do a project with David Hammons and he was going to make an entire wall of funk; to construct a wall covered in video monitors, and you’d hear it all as you passed by. Technically we just couldn’t realise it. But it’s all about questioning how much real attention we give to things — are we just recognising James Brown or whatever; does an image or clip just spark something off or are we actually looking?
Mark Suggitt: To go back to Black Panther for a second, thinking about time, it’s a Marvel superhero movie and they’ve been so successful because they’ve got the technology to make them incredible. Do you think it’s the timing of that that makes it special? I mean, Black Panther was a comic book back in the 1960s. There’s this technological and cultural delay.
Daisy Froud: What’s amazing about what Marvel is doing, it goes back to gender and race. Who is now getting to direct these movies and now putting an interpretation on these 1960s comics? A woman gets to direct Wonder Woman, and in interviews you can see how much that effects the character. Those are really important choices about power relations that are being made in the production of these things.
John Kieffer: Exactly, I think it’s more the levels of political awareness and the momentum of certain cultural moments than the technological aspects. It’s a zeitgeist thing.
Mark Suggitt: The interesting thing is the cultural and political rather than the CGI, but it has coincided.
Daisy Froud: Just to go back to Chloe’s one, I’m thinking about that collaging act that you brought up Charlie, it is quite interesting that the piece was in a tent, that combination of the place of contemplation and the heavily layered collage, unlike the other things we’ve looked at where it’s within your power to flick around and watch 10 seconds of it. You go into the tent and you have that experience.
Chloe Carroll: It does feel like it bridges the divide that’s come up here of the more, maybe, ‘conventional’, contemplative artworks like the Turrell and Eliasson and those heavily layered music videos. It has that more traditional sense of being sacred or having an aura,like what John [Holden] was saying about the crystal skull, that you have to go and see it to understand it; it doesn’t register in reproductions. This one is kind of traditional in that you can’t watch it unless you go to an art gallery where it’s being exhibited at that time; you queue; you sit down in the space with other people.
Charlie Tims: It was a pre-social media, pre-Facebook thing, about harnessing the proximity that the internet gave people. They’d set people random artistic assignments, and anyone could do them, then they’d be posted on the website. So it would be liked ‘take a photo of your parents kissing’; ‘make a field guide to your yard’; ‘perform a phone call someone else wished they could have’; ‘make an encouraging banner’… It was of a particular moment in time, but it was quite international. I know Tom Keeley loves this project too. Tom, have you come up with anything?
Tom Dyckhoff: I’ve got two now! I can’t decide between them. Stepping back in time for a minute — because it’s all been very current and I think we need to remind, particularly the younger people here, what things were really like 20 years ago! One is the smartphone, simply because 20 years ago they didn’t exist, it was all Blackberry and Nokia, tapping away. It’s a liberating piece of technology in that it enables all of this to take place. It can also be a condition of enslavement, as we know from the conditions under which they’re produced and the connections with globalisation. It’s this Janus-faced, double-edged sword. And with my ‘design hat’ on, it represents the kind of disappearance of design. It contains so much; it’s a gateway to these amazing worlds, but it’s such a simple object which now everything else is trying to emulate. I remember distinctly shifting from a Nokia to an iPhone and particularly because I’m Geography nerd I remember, in particular, the maps. This ability to be anywhere in the world and know where you are!
Charlie Tims: But is in an artwork? I’d say it’s a tool.
John Kieffer: It’s a cultural object, isn’t it?
Mark Suggitt: But it is an artefact. It’s already in museums. And as you say, it’s that beautiful dedication to simplicity and the intuition of using it.
Hadrian Garrard: Do you think we’ll all be embarrassed though, 20 years from today, at what we think is cutting edge now?
Tom Dyckhoff: My other one is really obvious, I suppose, for me. In the ancient medium of architecture, it would be the Guggenheim Bilbao, the most influential building, for better and for worse, of the last 20 years. It just doesn’t quite fit in because it’s one year out of the time bracket. But it has defined the last 20 years in all sorts of ways and continues to do so. It has transformed cities and urban experiences and has huge connections to all the things we’ve talked about so far. It’s all about representation and the medium.
Mark Suggitt: It highlights with all of these things, when you pull them back, whose actually making the money out of it?
Charlie Tims: Okay, John Newbiggin nominated Hamilton, and Hadrian, have you got one? Hadrian: I haven’t done my homework… I was going to say Seinfeld but I don’t actually think that’s the greatest artwork of the last two decades.
Lois Stonock: I thought we were going to see more of a divide between an older generation and a younger generation, but I don’t think we’ve necessarily seen it. I thought there might be more work in that space of social change and bringing people together vs. Beyoncé and more contemporary image-making stuff.
Mark Suggitt: Then there’s also the divide between what’s the most objectively significant work of art and what’s your personal favourite — and of course that can change every week.
Daisy Froud: But I think what’s interesting is when those things come together; when the things that you may be going through at points in your life happen to coincide with wide cultural goings-on. Like Me Too at the moment, people are tapping into individual experience at the same time as a cultural phenomenon. My choice of Grimes was a little tongue in cheek but, for me, 2012 was the year I got divorced and it was really like, as a middle aged woman, I’m really loving these young female role models who don’t give a fuck about men and are waving swords around in the desert, but also, so many other people felt that way at that time. There was a whole wave of people of different ages who were identifying with that symbolism and it feels really empowering.
John Kieffer: I think that’s right, there is something about if you’ve had an experience, even if its something unrelated to an artwork, it absolutely amplifies it. So I would vote for the Guggenheim Bilbao, I guess, because I’ve had great days there.
Charlie Tims: I was gonna say that most of the big art institutions are kind of superfluous to this stuff but maybe that’s unfair. Maybe if you’re looking for significant stuff you’re always going to go to big stuff.
John Kieffer: Those institutions, with exceptions, to me, if we’re going to go forward 20 years, I think they’re going to be less and less important.
Charlie Tims: It does make you feel a bit nostalgic for things like the Turbine Hall. I mean, The Weather Project, and the massive Amish Kapoor… Is it because they haven’t got money for stuff like that anymore? Have they run out of money?
Lois Stonock: No, they’ve got that Hyundai contract for the next 10 years. But it’s interesting, with Lemonade, ‘Genesis’, Black Panther, most of them, it’s all about the role of the individual — the people in it, rather than the institution. Even the Guggenheim is not necessarily about the institution’s role within a place but more physically what it looks like and how people around it have reacted to it. Most of the conversation around policy is always about the institution and how you support it, but actually the things that most people value are working around the institution, or trying to find ways to do things despite the institution.
Tom Dyckhoff: It’s good to be nostalgic sometimes, I think. And it’s good to remind ourselves of the enormous strides that took place. Places like Guggenheim Bilbao and the Tate Modern were amazing in opening up an art world which, when I was growing up, was routinely mocked in popular culture to becoming, actually, popular culture.
Charlie Tims: Okay, Harriet’s one is Counterweight Roommate by Alex Schweder. I think she’d gone down the route of choosing her favourite work.
Daisy Froud: I mean, in terms of what you were saying before, Lois, it’s a performative, collaborative work, in a gallery. She said she liked all their work but this was an example.
Charlie Tims: Alright, I don’t actually know if there’s any point in having a vote, because so much of our discussion has been about how we actually understand the question. And I haven’t’ shown you mine! It’s LCD Soundsystem, ‘Losing my Edge’ — it was sort of their first release, in 2005. The main point is that he’s losing his edge; the kids are coming up from behind; he’s playing the part of someone who wants to believe that they’re all over everything that’s ever happened in music and as it goes on he gets more and more angry and starts screaming the names of cool bands from the late 60s and 70s into the microphone. I think as a piece of music it’s really good and I still listen to it now and then. But for me I guess it’s sort of like, he’s in his early 30s at this point, and he’s spent 30 years of his life searching out the best alternative music that other people don’t know about and suddenly they do know about it because you can get it on the fucking internet! So his whole world is collapsing around him. I think there was a much more powerful idea 20 years ago about what the mainstream was and what the alternative was.
John Kieffer: I wrote a thing in the Village Voice about what was wrong with UK pop culture, about it being obsessed with always being better than the previous generation.
Mark Suggitt: Well in the song he’s mourning the decline of the elitism and snobbery and tribalism that goes with saying “I’m here, and you’re not.” And that’s back to the internet — if you like this, you’ll like that. The whole canon is just there, it’s pic n’ mix, you’re not relying on your big brother’s record collection anymore, you can just go and dabble.
Daisy Froud: But the thing I miss is, with my daughter getting into fashion and music and stuff, is that, I feel in many ways really lucky to have had the canon because it made me have really intimate relationships with things that I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. Whether it was the books my parents had that therefore I read, because they were the ones available. All these things I had an encounter with. And of course she can have an encounter with any of them, too, but she’s got to have a reason; she’s got to choose to. It’s a double-edged sword, really, because I hate the way that so much of my cultural consumption was dictated in that way, and I was trained to regard some things as good and bad, and now I’ve had to un-train myself.
Mark Suggitt: But the great thing is that it’s accidental; that one interest leads off to somewhere else.
Daisy Froud: But would you give everything a chance? Because some stuff I thought was really boring but because I had to form a relationship with it, now I don’t find it boring.
John Kieffer: That’s when limitations can be productive. It’s where actually being put in a place that’s not entirely of your own desire is not a bad thing sometimes. Experiencing something that is out of whack with where you are.
Mark Suggitt: Being taken out of your comfort zone.
Daisy Froud: But it’s whether you can do that without the old structure of power relations dictating what those things are, isn’t it? A lot of those things I was forced to have a relationship with are White Western male things.
John Kieffer: There’s some quite powerful gatekeepers on social media. It’s interesting to see how the gatekeepers for culture have changed so dramatically since 20 years ago.